English votes for English laws: a Tory power grab dressed up in constitutional jargon

The Conservatives' plans are a dog's breakfast that may finish off the United Kingdom for good, warns Owen Smith MP.

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The banality of this particular EVEL is its nakedly partisan purpose. Faced with the prospect of navigating five stormy years, with a majority of just twelve, the Tories are shamelessly trying to turn the legitimate debate about devolution for England into a wholly illegitimate extension of their majority to 105. It is, as Angela Eagle said last week, playing with fire on the constitution and it is to the eternal discredit of the Conservative and Unionist Party that they should be prepared to jeopardise the security of the Union and diminish the standing of Great Britain in the World.

And many of the Tories know it is shameful, too. That is why we can expect some of their braver souls to speak out in today’s emergency debate against both the indefensible haste with which their government are trying to push through the changes, and against the substance of the reforms themselves.

Let’s be clear about what is intended here. Masked by the reasonable rhetoric about answering the West Lothian question and correcting the imbalance created by devolution to Scotland and Wales, is the creation, almost overnight, of an English Parliament. Not a Parliament that, like those in Cardiff and Edinburgh, would sit apart from Westminster, decentralising power, but rather one that would sit even closer to the centre: an incubus at the heart of Westminster. A Parliament within Parliament.

That will be the clear and certain effect of introducing the procedures proposed in such reasonable and soothing tones by Chris Grayling. His plan is to create an extra step in legislation whereby  any Bills certified by the Speaker as relating only to England will have to achieve a ‘double majority’ of support from both all MPs in the House of Commons and of all the English MPs voting that day.

Now, taken at first glance, this might seem a fair change, little different surely to the lengthy and learned proposals made by Lord Mackay. In keeping, indeed, with Labour’s proposal in our own manifesto to ensure English MPs had a greater role in scrutinising England-only legislation. And if that were the case, then we would not find ourselves opposing these changes, but Grayling’s schema differs in key respects.

Firstly, instead of being worked through and properly analysed either as a Bill, or better still, through the Constitutional Convention that we need to sort out our devolution disorder, this is being rammed through in a dodgy change to the Standing Orders of the House of Commons. A bit like Sepp Blatter changing the offside rule after a night out in Qatar.

Secondly, this goes far further than any constitutional experts have suggested in giving the English MPs the additional power of Veto over the whole House of Commons, creating two classes of MPs with the stroke of a pen. That is what turns this from being a reasonable change to being a land-grab for a bigger majority, a means to limit opposition to the actions of the executive. It’s what guarantees that this change will lead, at some point, to constitutional crisis, as English MPs clash with ‘the rest’, creating deadlock in our Parliament. And that is principally why it must be stopped.

Of course, there are myriad other problems and anomalies in what is proposed. It doesn’t apply to the Lords, for a start, meaning the interests of England’s commoners could be overturned by their Lordships. Secondly, it doesn’t apply to Wales or Scotland legislation in Westminster. So the current Scotland Bill and the forthcoming Wales Bill, relating exclusively to those countries, would be voted on by all MPs, including the English.

Third, there’s the fact that, despite devolution, public services remain greatly shared across the England-Wales border: at least 50,000 Welsh men and women have always used specialist hospital services in England, while 100,000 travel there each day to work. And finally, the process of ‘certification’ of bills, their designation as England or England and Wales-only, will expressly ignore the existence of our broken Barnett formula, the spending mechanism whereby all ‘England-only’ spending allocations on health or education have a direct impact on Wales and Scotland, through determining the share of public spending in those nations.

In other words, it’s a dog’s breakfast, slopped together just before the summer recess and patently aimed at parlaying English nationalism into Tory advantage. It puts party interest above national interest, and belies any attempt by the Tories to win back their One Nation mantle. The process of devolution and decentralisation of power in Britain has been a mess, and Labour must shoulder our share of the blame for that.

Though England, with its 54 million people, its metropolitan centres and cultural dominance, has little real reason to feel resentment at poorer, more peripheral parts of Britain, we cannot deny that those sentiments are growing. The challenge of our generation of politicians is to resist the temptation to pander to the new nationalism, in Wales, Scotland and England too, and re-build, instead, the solidarity and strength that comes from our Union. That will require reform to governance for England, and perhaps within England, but our united Parliament, where all members are equal, wherever they come from, is the keystone of that Union, and we dismantle it at our peril. 

Owen Smith is shadow secretary of state for Northern Ireland and MP for Pontypridd.